- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

It isn’t Carson Palmer, one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. It isn’t receiver Chad Johnson, with his jigs and pushups in the end zone. It isn’t the effective running of Rudi Johnson.

The Cincinnati Bengals look good — darn good — and much of the credit for their 3-0 start doesn’t go to their offensive stars but to their opportunistic defense.

The Bengals intercepted five passes in each of their victories over the Vikings and Bears, becoming the first team in 34 years to swipe as many passes in back-to-back games.

The Bengals lead the NFL with 16 takeaways, seven more than any other team.

“When you’re on the plus side, you’re getting yourself off the field defensively, limiting your exposure to bad things happening to you,” said coach Marvin Lewis, who was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2000. “You want to play defense on the sidelines. That’s the best way to play defense.”

And that’s what the Bengals have done: They lead the NFL in time of possession at 34:40 a game. That means the defense is on the field for only 25:20.

Cincinnati has turned those 16 turnovers into 50 of their AFC-high 88 points. That bodes well for the Bengals, who hadn’t been 3-0 in 15 seasons and have won their games by margins of 14, 29 and 17 points.

Fans have taken heart — and opened their wallets: Sales of Bengals merchandise are up 64 percent. Veteran linebacker Brian Simmons is equally pumped by the brighter outlook for a team that started poorly and finished 8-8 the past two seasons.

“The last two years, we’ve been putting ourselves behind the eight ball,” Simmons said. “We’ve been closing strong, but it was just a too-little, too-late type of thing. You only have a certain amount of games to make your statement, and you can’t wait until halfway through the season to do it.”

With the hapless Texans visiting Sunday, the Bengals likely will add another victory to their record and mark their best start since they last reached the Super Bowl in 1988.

Dueling backs — San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson went into the season with his sights set on Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105 yards.

When Tomlinson managed just 124 yards the first two weeks, his chances looked slim, but he scorched the Giants for 192 yards Sunday to rocket his average to 138.7 a game, 7.1 ahead of Dickerson’s pace.

However, Buccaneers rookie sensation Cadillac Williams has been even better than Tomlinson, averaging 144.7 a game. With 434 yards already, Williams should make it 13 straight years that a rookie has run for at least 1,000 yards — if he stays heathy.

From field to court — Now that John Roberts is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, it won’t be his first time in charge. Roberts, a self-described “small, but slow halfback,” was co-captain of the La Lumiere School football team in high school in LaPorte, Ind.

Another former player from the Hoosier State is already a Chief Justice. Bob Thomas, who kicked Notre Dame past Alabama to win the 1973 national title and had a 12-year NFL career, was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois on Sept. 7. Thomas’ former Bears teammate, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page, is an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Futbol Americano — It won’t be close to pro football at its best when porous San Francisco (1,431 yards and 101 points allowed, both easily league worsts) meets winless Arizona in Mexico City on Sunday night, but it will be the first game played outside of the United States in the NFL’s 86 seasons.

The game will be televised by 18 broadcasters in 218 countries. “Futbol Americano” banners will be placed in all stadiums this weekend as the NFL celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month.

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